Choosing A Family
Frequent PM contributor Amy Whipple always intended to become a foster parent. Now the adoptive mother of a 3-year-old boy, she shares the story of her new family.
photos by Becky Thurner Braddock
As a kid in suburban Washington, D.C., I saw all around me military and immigrant families, both with communities that extended what it meant to be a family. Later, in Pittsburgh, I fell into being a nanny and, in doing so, learned what it meant to love a child unconditionally, to be part of the storied “village.” At church, I was a confirmation mentor and an occasional nursery volunteer, with a year of serving as a Deacon — the caretakers of the Presbyterian church — under my belt.
Which is all to say that I very much, more than anything else, believe in what we can give and be for each other.
For most of us, there’s never a good time to become a parent. There’s also not a good logical reason to become a parent. Whether it’s personal or political turmoil, marital status or financial straits, it’s remarkably easy — or difficult, depending on your stance — to say, no, thank you. But the times are always changing and, in 2017, people are increasingly saying yes to myriad family structures and circumstances.
In the summer of my 31st year, as my peers started building their families, a friend asked what was stopping me from becoming a foster parent. I had an education and a job; I realized I had a vast net of support and valued being part of that net for others. Perhaps, I thought, it was time.
Like any good millennial, I took to the Internet. Pennsylvania is one of 13 states where the foster system is partially privatized, which means that private agencies place children on behalf of government agencies. When I decided to become a foster parent, my training, supervision and placement would largely be at the hands of one of 11 agencies inside Allegheny County. Most of these agencies participate in cooperative training, though they each have different specialties in terms of children served and whether they deal in foster care, adoption or both.
As I scrolled through the list of agencies, I noticed Project STAR, part of The Children’s Institute in Squirrel Hill. A girl I had nannied spent many afternoons at The Children’s Institute for physical and occupational therapies. That little bit of familiarity, the convenient location and the seeming niceness of the website were all it took for me to send an inquiry.
I dragged the certification process on for about nine months, with good reason; I lived in a one-bedroom apartment and my lease had renewed weeks earlier. In Pennsylvania, children older than one year must have their own bedroom. So I took my time going through the informational packet from Project STAR that gave brief insight into the process. I also took 20 hours of required classes, among them, “Child Development,” “Grief and Loss,” “Attachment,” “Healing the Hurts” and CPR/first aid. During the classes, the instructors reiterated that, in Pennsylvania, marital status and sexual orientation are not hindrances in the certification process; thankfully, we live in a state that recognizes a need to find every possible good home for children who need one.
My remarkable caseworker Bethany spent a series of afternoons in my apartment, asking questions about my childhood, adulthood, intentions, philosophies on discipline and affection. One afternoon included a veritable Match.com profile of children I would be willing to receive into my home. Gender (either), race (any), age (any), girls in the hardened haze of sexual abuse (of course), quick-tempered boys who rage at walls (depends, since I’m not very big). Disabilities: emotional (yes), cognitive (yes), physical (subsets): Blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound. Maybe — I don’t know much about blindness. Yes — I took American Sign Language as my foreign language in high school. Maybe — if my next apartment could be handicap-accessible.
On a Saturday night in late February 2015, I hosted a “Parks and Recreation”-inspired, “waffles and friends” birthday party. My apartment was full of people, children playing in the walk-in closet, towering stacks of Belgian waffles on the kitchen counter, mimosa stickiness everywhere. It was my favorite kind of party: disparate groups of people in and around my life getting to know each other, finding connections, telling stories and laughing so hard no one could hear the music.
In the quiet morning after, I woke up to an email from Bethany. “So I know this is kind of sudden,” she wrote, “but is there any way you may consider taking a 10-month-old, biracial boy that has a seizure disorder as a placement this week? This is how the universe works sometimes, right!”
Nothing in my gut told me not to say yes. If we weren’t a good fit, I could at least keep him safe and well-cared for until other arrangements could be made. I wrote back and asked, “Why not?”
She responded with more about his recent seizure-related hospitalizations and that Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC would train me in administering medications and otherwise caring for his needs. The next day, she came over to finalize my foster certification and gave me a printout about schizencephaly, the brain disorder from which this baby’s seizures stemmed.
It’s hard to plan for the imminent arrival of a not-brand-new baby. I didn’t know what he ate or what size he wore or the toys he preferred. The morning I was to get him from the hospital, our new caseworker dropped off a portable crib, a stroller and a car seat. She would meet me at the hospital early in the afternoon.
Once I arrived, she said that this Wee Dude — a name I’ve taken to using in writing — had undergone neurosurgery a month prior, to place a shunt. His head might look a little scary at first, she said. Maybe, for a microsecond, it did, when all I could see was the top of his head through the bars of the crib — stitches arcing across a large raised bump that was partially shaved, the rest of his head a wisp of light brown hair.
On the other side of his crib, I saw him fully: his stern face and mountain-sturdy body. The brightly colored pandas on his hospital gown. Something vulnerable I couldn’t place. I put my hand through the bars and told him hello. “You can hold him,” the nurse said. I picked him up and snuggled him in a chair, mindful of monitoring wires and an IV. He was hefty and soft at the same time. Wires aside, holding him felt ordinary — like meeting a new child I might nanny.
And, like the start of a new job, I focused on learning the rules. I knew I had time to get to know him after I got to know the rules. Wee Dude took formula thickened to a sludge with rice cereal. His four medications were mixed in the same, to be given on a strict schedule twice a day. He would need, for a week, antibiotic drops administered through a cartoon-seal-shaped nebulizer with a turtle-printed face mask. He had a small brace for his left hand, to ease the tightness in his fingers while he slept.
In a wonderfully Pittsburgh moment, a pediatrician — the wife of a guy I went to grad school with — stopped by. She had heard my name somewhere in the inner-workings of the hospital and wanted to check in on us. It was the first in a continuing series of compassionate moments rendered onto us as a family, one that I often come back to when considering why I love this city and how we made it through those early days.
That night, when Wee Dude came home with me, he became one of more than 400,000 children in foster care across the country, almost half of whom are in non-kinship resource families (placement with blood relatives, “kinship care,” is given priority when placing children). In Pennsylvania, he was one of between 13,000-15,000. Only 3 percent of those children are medically complex.
I have a picture from that night. We’re on my bed, and he’s sitting on my lap while I read “Put Me in the Zoo.” He’s wearing green and gray pajamas with a dragon-slaying knight on the shirt and an ever-so-slightly surprised look on his face. I think about that night often. I didn’t yet know the extent of his developmental delays, but I doubted how much he could truly understand. What must he have thought in his whirling, electric brain as I cuddled and fed him, as he slept in the portable crib at the end of my bed?
The transition hit us hard, with the steepest of learning curves. I focused on controllable logistics: feedings, meds, keeping paperwork in order. It was too easy to fall into a spiral of worry about the swelling of his shunt site or if he was seizing — all of the unknowns. He slept so deeply and so much that I kept a spreadsheet of his waking hours just to prove to myself that he had any. While we waited for daycare logistics to work out, I carted him to follow-up appointments and started to get to know him. Most of his specialists said his future could be anywhere between where he was at that moment and just like any other kid, except maybe with braces on his ankles. His neurosurgeon was the only one to explicitly say that uncontrolled seizures or a malfunctioning shunt could kill him, and that I would have to be diligent in my care.
It was only a matter of weeks before he was back in the hospital for a shunt revision. In pre-op, Wee Dude rolled over for the first time. I later learned he already knew how to do that. I would watch, in the year to come, as he learned to sit unassisted only to have a massive seizure take that skill away — until he had another massive seizure and, once more, sat. The unpredictable, inexplicable gains and losses that many foster children face emotionally played out, though not correlatively, in Wee Dude’s health.
Life picked up soon after Wee Dude’s shunt revision. He began attending a medical daycare, one of two in the region, and the only one with a proper education component as well as access to therapists contracted through Children’s Hospital. There, he grew alongside his peers in ways he might never have accomplished with my help alone. His county-sponsored early intervention team assembled — physical, occupational, vision, and (later) hearing and developmental therapies, each once a week.
Though Wee Dude had passed his newborn vision screening, his seizures brought about Cortical Visual Impairment, a neurological form of blindness (and the most common form to strike in childhood). Pittsburgh is home to the leading researcher and advocate for the condition, Dr. Christine Roman. Wee Dude had, by geographical chance, a vision therapist trained directly by Roman, as well as a knowledgeable ophthalmologist and access to outreach services from The Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children. Although he is still legally blind, the therapy has brought about some incremental improvements in his vision; we don’t know what the ceiling might be.
Wee Dude’s goals zoomed into the most micro of accomplishments. Bringing his hands to midline. Reaching for and grasping a toy. Holding up his head while on his belly. For months, he could not perch on my hip without my supporting his trunk like an infant. As he pressed on through toddlerhood, he was outfitted for a stander and a gait trainer to learn to bear weight on his legs and take somewhat accidental steps. Not all of the developments were gains; during a swallow test early that first summer, even the formula/rice sludge slid uncontested into his lungs, for which he earned a feeding tube.
It was around that time that Wee Dude’s birth mom requested to terminate her parental rights and said that she’d like for me to adopt.
It would have been reasonable to say no, thank you: we had just moved, I was looking for a new job, and Wee Dude had increased medical needs. But we were already so solidly a team, a family, that I couldn’t imagine saying anything other than yes when my caseworker asked if I would agree — if I would become part of the 65 percent of Pennsylvania resource families who adopt the children placed in their care.
Pennsylvania’s Act 101 of 2010 essentially gives families a simulacrum of open adoption. It’s now seen as a best practice, in stark contrast to decades of secrecy, to maintain some kind of relationship — when appropriate — with the child’s birth family. The act also mandates a statewide information registry, giving people access to all documents associated with their adoption.
We had a very easy adoption experience. Since Wee Dude’s birth mom willingly terminated her rights, we weren’t dragged through years of back and forth with the court. No one was trying to get custody of Wee Dude to prove a point or be spiteful toward someone else. Everyone was on the same page with regards to what it would take to do best by him.
The unpleasant question was about the money it takes to raise a medically complex child. I’m a writer and a church office administrator — which is to say I pay my bills but don’t have a lot of extra cash. Wee Dude’s medical needs at the time of his adoption cost approximately $800 per day; this number does not include routine appointments with his seven specialists, nor any necessary surgeries, procedures or hospital stays. Luckily, parents who adopt from the foster care system can, depending on the age, race and disabilities of the child, be eligible for an adoption subsidy that is comparable to foster care reimbursement. Additionally, Title IV-E of the Social Security Act entitles most of these children to Medicaid. We could not exist as a family without this assistance.
More personally, we also could not exist without a seemingly endless supply of support: family; friends; neighbors; members of our church; the foster agency; Facebook groups; early intervention therapists; daycare; the School for Blind Children; doctors in clinics, the emergency department and inpatient units across Children’s Hospital; nurse after nurse after nurse after nurse.
In some ways, Adoption Day was an afterthought. After 22 months of foster care, we had already transitioned to the post-adoption phone and visitation schedule so that Wee Dude’s birth mom could heal and focus on a future that didn’t include raising him. I was already running Wee Dude’s life on my own recognizance. What it did was make binding what we already had, what I had already promised, in the same way that his baptism would a couple of weeks later: that I would see him — and love him — through this journey, regardless of what that journey looked like.
Prior to Adoption Day, our caseworker — who checked in once a month and would be the one to speak on behalf of the case in court — gave me a list of possible questions that the judge could ask. The one I couldn’t work my way through was, “Why do you want to adopt this child?” The only answer I had was, “because I love him.”
“I want to” was all I had, really, in becoming a foster parent. Later, “Why not” was all I had when asked if I could take him in. “Because I love him” was stronger than any reasoning I could have offered the judge in becoming an adoptive parent.
Which is why that’s exactly what burst from my mouth when he asked.
It turned out, as it often does, that the days between “I want to,” “why not” and “because I love him” were exactly reason enough.
And now: I wish you could see this boy.
In the morning, when we pull up to preschool and his legs dance in his car seat. In the afternoons, when his right forearm jolts out to wave goodbye to his daycare friends. In the evening, when he sits tall on his superhero rug and his face erupts in a deep-dimpled smile. In his sleep, when he curls into a ball, clutching the bear my grandma won for him playing bingo, the chosen one in an apartment full of stuffed animals.
What I see is not entirely what I had imagined, and yet none of it is a surprise, either.